A Secret History of the Muggles

It has become commonplace when writing about the abortive Nonmagical Revolution of 1970 for the author to deplore, usually in farcically dramatic terms, the violence perpetrated by the Mundane Public Oversight Committee and their agents in the Ordinary Revolutionary Police (ORP) against the Scottish wizarding community. The habit is part the ideological reflex of the subsequent fifty years and part self-conscious hedge against the excoriation that, nevertheless, always follows in the comment section beneath screen-names like BerwickGrindlewald44 or Merlin_the_Auror. Neither that inevitability nor the certain knowledge of its origin in magical-class ideology preclude me from acknowledging that I, too, feel the compassionate impulse; born, maybe, in the imagined stink and sizzle of flesh subjected to nonmagical flames. So let me be clear: the autos-da-fé of almost twenty pureblood witches and wizards along Princes Street on April 30th 1970 was and remains a tragedy. The sporadic outbreaks of unorganised muggle violence throughout the month are also to be mourned. Compassion demands that I recognise this. But it also demands that we, as a community still claiming to speak for wizard and muggle alike, recognise that the violence of the Nonmagical Revolution pales into insignificance beside the millions of muggle deaths for which the wizarding community has been responsible before and since. There can be little doubt that the April Burnings represent the final desperate act of a group of idealistic people certain of the failure of their utopian and materialist dreams — people already hearing the rumble of thunderbirds approaching across the North Sea to render their fledgling Ordinary Republic to nothing. But the violence perpetrated by wizards against muggles through history represents no desperation and no squandered hopes; just the horrific, enlightened logic of comfort and expediency. We do well to remember — though it is often forgotten, amid narratives of triumphal restoration — that almost four hundred nonmagical people were killed in the retaliatory razing of Edinburgh. Compassion, of course, is never simple — nor comfortable.

The morning of Thursday the twenty-sixth of March 1970 was an unusually bright one for Edinburgh in that time of year. The air was light and cold, the sky a preternaturally deep blue. In previous years and in years to come the clement weather would have been remarked upon, perhaps appreciated. But in the early months of 1970 almost anything that lay a hair’s width beyond the ordinary was cause for suspicion and discomfort. Shadows and corners were peered at; stray cats and birds hissed at; in a city as overrun with Gothic semi-splendour as Edinburgh, practically everything participated in a thick layering of the eerie. Unusually good weather was frightening; it raised one’s hackles.

The reason, of course, was the Great Uncloaking of Guy Fawkes’ Night 1969. The repeal of the International Statute of Secrecy of 1689 and the voluntary self-revelation of the global wizarding community represented a rift in the fabrics of both the magical and (suddenly) nonmagical worlds, but its effect on the newly-named muggles was especially drastic. In late 1969 the free-wheeling, dionysiac, and charlatanistic magic of the Sixties was replaced by the cold, mechanistic, and depressingly real magic of the wizards themselves, and most muggles — though many in both communities would have struggled to articulate it as such at the time — took the event to be not so much an exaltation of their mundane and earthly everyday lives as the utter profaning of the few moments of magic that those lives had once held. Familiar but uncommon events like a bright March day in Edinburgh took on a coldness and a sense of premeditation that they had previously been able to escape. This very sense of the ordinariness of the non-ordinary, the sudden limitation of horizons that the Great Uncloaking paradoxically represented, was cause enough for an odd-looking cat cleaning itself in an intemperate sunbeam to suddenly become an object of deep psychic terror.

That the murder of the cat took on such folkloric status is itself a sign of the disjointedness of the time. Doubtless the remaining uncertainty over whether it was really an animagus contributes to this status. But it also represents a last gasp of instinctive muggle myth-making in a time when the easily explicability of all weirdnesses by wands and poorly-appropriated Latin was fast approaching. In this spirit, we might as well say that Rainer Weil, a German exchange student at the University of Edinburgh, passed by the pathetic and bloody scene on his way to the well-appointed Buccleuch Street flat of his friend and protean lover Diana Pritt. Perhaps he, too, regarded the blue sky with suspicion, and sank deeper into the collar of his (probably fake) People’s Liberation Army officer’s jacket. Certainly we know from the writings that he left behind — finally removed from the proscription lists in 2015 — that he was fully aware of the dialectical break that the Uncloaking constituted for muggle ontology. It is in the context of this break that we can repudiate the later claims, still common enough today, that Weil’s emphasis of ordinariness and mundanity in the trappings of his Revolution represented a sort of dunderheaded muggle chauvinism — were such a thing really possible. Weil’s instinct was that in asserting mundanity, the bright shadow of the extra-mundane would appear again in opposition — not, as has often been said, because he was fundamentally irredentist, striving to re-Cloak the wizarding world, but because the break of the Uncloaking was itself an opportunity for all the ideological and oppression-enabling anti-myths of both worlds to disintegrate. That he saw this as rapidly as he did is a testament to a genius to which no wizard political theorist has ever come close.

But we get ahead of ourselves. It is unknown precisely when Pritt’s flat became the hub for the Nonmagical People’s Strategic Committee, but it is likely that the group began meeting very shortly after the Uncloaking. The tactics and strategy of the insurrection of March 27th suggest that its leaders had undertaken considerable research in the short time they had available to them. Of course, in 1969–70 even less was known about the magical tools used by the wizarding authorities to maintain muggle order and wizard supremacy than is known now. The NPSC were unaware of the devastating area-wide disappearing spells, the widespread usage of mass legilimency, the deliberate poisoning of water supplies with obnubilating and memory-annihilating substances — used most famously across the whole of Lower Manhattan in 1926 but to much more pernicious effect in the forced resettlement of indigenous muggles during the foundings of both Castelobruxo and Ilvermorny schools — the magical bonds that kept the house-elves enslaved, the customary manipulation of both press and history, the isolation of entire communities from the outside world through invisible barriers, the instinctive and democidal usage of terrifying beasts as methods of policing that the default practice of memory obliteration supposedly sanctified. Nevertheless the early leaders of the Nonmagical Revolution were aware that they were hugely overpowered and that any attempt to seize control from the wizards would require decisive, near-instantaneous, and — most importantly — utterly unpredictable action. Their organising of the muggle populace into a latent guerilla force was by far their most important achievement. But they developed flashier techniques too: aware that the vast majority of wizards could not reliably perform wandless magic, they taught themselves and their recruits how to disarm their adversaries through wrist-breaks — also reasonably effective against those that could perform wandless magic, it has to be said — and how to destroy every wand that fell into their possession. They stockpiled handcuffs and distributed them throughout the population through which their guerillas moved. They also distributed magic-cancelling agents — probably developed by the sympathising witch Corinna Carlyle — and, of course, the notorious darts through which the potions could be delivered.

Description of this weaponry of Revolution will no doubt have done little to ingratiate my subjects to the sceptical wizard or witch reader. But one must remember the uncertainty and rage that the Great Uncloaking inspired. More terrifying than the prospect of centuries of manipulation was the certain knowledge of the wizards’ apparent indifference to the problems of the muggle world: the Vietnam War dragged on, with the memories of Korea and World War 2 still fresh for many; the world was shadowed forever by the prospect of nuclear annihilation (Weil was ten years old during the Cuban Missile Crisis); pointless millions died through disease and poverty. The revelation of the power of magic added horrendous and apocalyptic uncertainty to a world already accustomed to the power of the hydrogen bomb. But worse yet from the perspective of many muggles was that this power had been used exclusively to deceive them when it could have been used to help them; as the months following the Uncloaking wore on it became apparent to muggles that even the so-called hard-left of the wizarding world accepted the necessity of this system of invisible hierarchy without debate, while the hard-right openly preached their annihilation with little admonition from the Ministry of Magic. By January 1970, Weil and Pritt both considered their Revolution as being liberatory of witches and wizards, too.

And by March 26th the Strategic Committee was finally — though the pace of their organisation was remarkable — in a position to enact their plans. Little is known of the contents of that final meeting between Weil and Pritt; it is not even certain who else, if anyone, was in the Buccleuch Street flat. But in the early hours of the 27th several thousand muggles, with Weil, Pritt, and Carlyle amongst them, marched upon the Edinburgh Ministry offices demanding entry. The graveyard-shift wizards and house-elves within were at a loss as to how to respond to muggles expressing anything beyond obsequiousness or terror. No official operating procedure had yet been developed regarding incidents of muggle-wizard tension; one of the conditions imposed by muggle governments prior to the Uncloaking was that no wizard was now permitted to hex, jinx, or otherwise magically inconvenience any muggle without good cause. Of course even in a few months this rule had been broken countless times, mostly by the various Ministries of Magic themselves. But for the individual witches and wizards inside the Edinburgh offices on March 27th the threat from the Ministry of violating this monopoly on magical violence seemed far greater than that of a few thousand unruly muggles — and so they capitulated.

Once within, the rebels swiftly set about disabling the witches and wizards in any way they could. Of course, once it became apparent what was happening the hexes and jinxes started flying; but the Strategic Committee had placed its faith in force of numbers, and that faith was repaid. When the sun rose on the morning of the 27th local radio stations broadcast a message proclaiming that the Ministry of Magic had no jurisdiction within Edinburgh and that magic itself was banned from the city. Illusions, spells of locking, and other forms of magical barrier or border were to be immediately cancelled. Aurors and — perhaps foolishly — bureaucrats were to be expelled; other witches and wizards were free to stay and were to remain unharmed and unmolested so long as they did not practice magic. Special exceptions were granted to children who were unable to yet contain or control their magic and to magic that was used specifically in the service of the Revolution; of primary importance in this latter was the “immediate expropriation and socialisation of wizard healthcare”, which in practice meant large incentives — paid for from the vaults of the seized wizard banks — being put in place for any witch or wizard willing to go to work in muggle hospitals.

Few were. Monetary incentives did not hold much water for the extraordinarily wealthy aristocrats that made up the majority of the magical population of Edinburgh at that time. The exodus began almost immediately, with many Edinburgh witches and wizards choosing to apparate to properties they held elsewhere. The Strategic Committee, now in the form of the distinct but isomorphic Mundane Public Oversight Committee, immediately freed the house-elves and enlisted their aid in ransacking the Ministry offices. Most important were its archives; and most important within these was the roster of aurors. A few months under the tyrannical rule of the wizard-police of the city had been enough to convince Edinburgh’s muggles that their nominal role — that of protecting muggles and wizards alike from the machinations of so-called Dark Wizards — was a sham. More often the aurors just protected the interests of powerful wizards against any and all muggles. With the names in hand and with the help of the house-elves the aurors of Edinburgh — those that had not yet left under their own steam — were arrested. These events were violent. The aurors had no qualms about defending themselves, and in many instances the arrests were poorly organised and executed, the muggles and (later) the Revolutionary Police relying on weight of numbers and strength of fury to undo their magical disadvantage. Yet in their rage they were successful; at any rate, within ten days or so of the Revolution, there were no aurors in dragon-leather trenchcoats wandering the streets of Edinburgh any longer.

It is here that we must pause to reflect, though unfortunately only briefly, on the difference between the Edinburgh Nonmagical Revolution and the other popular nonmagical uprisings that took place in the early days of the Uncloaked era. It is unknown whether the city’s proximity to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry was a determining factor in the minds of Weil and Pritt — certainly Weil rarely mentions it in his writings — but there can be little doubt that the threat of that proximity helped galvanise Edinburgh’s muggle population to organise in a way that few other muggle insurrections could match. Of those that could match the size and level of organisation of the Edinburgh Revolution, venal imperialist geopolitics — both magic and mundane — were to be their downfall. The British Ministry of Magic and its muggle counterpart had little trouble blackmailing and coercing the muggle government of Pakistan into bloodily putting down the Dacca (now Dhaka) Riots of December ’69; and, as is well known, the Magical Congress of the United States of America (MACUSA) vastly overreached its muggle and wizard jurisdictions in siccing dozens of blood-starved Peruvian Vipertooth dragons onto the muggle population of São Paulo during the summer of 1972. The Edinburgh Revolution lasted barely a month; but, in the long and violent history of muggle resistance, it is notable for its longevity.

In large part this difference can be attributed to outright racism. The wizarding world, with its institutions of blood and purity, was and remains even more prone to structural racism than its muggle counterpart. But there were also petty political factors in play. Almost immediately following the insurrection, the Minister for Magic Eugenia Jenkins demanded the right to impose magical martial law over Edinburgh until control of the city again lay within the hands of the Ministry. But, remarkably enough Prime Minister Wilson refused — showing a great deal more concern for the muggle citizens of Edinburgh than he ever did for those of Dhaka. He instead insisted that the situation be resolved through peaceful negotiation between the MPOC in Edinburgh and his own nonmagical government. Only two meetings between Wilson and the leaders of the MPOC took place, in both of which Weil and Pritt demanded the immediate dissolution of the Ministry of Magic, trial and imprisonment of wizards guilty of muggle rights abuses in the centuries since the Statute of Secrecy, reparations for those same abuses, and — again — the expropriation and socialisation of magic for the good of all the people. It is likely that Wilson was not sympathetic to these aims, and his private writings reveal that he considered the rebel students as beneath contempt. The instinctive obsequiousness before power that characterises muggle politicians could not be overcome by any kind of instinct toward solidarity, and Wilson certainly was not in favour of socialisation or dissolution. But in his discussions with Jenkins Wilson presented the situation as one in which resolution was always just around the corner, if only the muggle authorities could be allowed to operate without interference from the Ministry.

In truth Wilson, whose personal dislike for Jenkins was well-known even at the time, saw the insurrection as an opportunity to establish some kind of permanent hierarchical authority of Her Majesty’s Government over the Ministry of Magic — which he saw as most properly being a department of the muggle government. This was precisely because of the obsequiousness that magical power inspired in him — his admiration for it, and hence his desire to subsume it into the functions of the nonmagical state. And so he stalled the Ministry and kept the crisis going for as long as he could, hoping that in the end some nonmagical solution would present itself and he, the leader of the British muggles, could take credit. Food and other nonmagical goods continued to make their way into Edinburgh. The MPOC was left to build a single magical-muggle state — the so-called Ordinary Republic of Edinburgh — by itself.

Life in the city quickly became ordinary, at least for muggle citizens. The dozen or so muggle-born witches and wizards that remained in solidarity with the Revolution did indeed turn their magical abilities toward the public good, and showed remarkable success. The Oversight Committee is often compared to the Committee of Public Safety in Revolutionary France, evidently using their symbolic similarities with the intent of tarnishing both. But after the first ten days — which were violent, it must be said, though the only death after the cat was of a muggle hit by the Unforgivable Killing Curse — the Committee for the most part oversaw its attempts to build a proto-magical-socialist state peacefully. Of course with only a dozen collaborating magical users the extent to which the relative success of the experiment can be extrapolated to larger mixed magical-muggle communities is limited. But those few trailblazing witches and wizards did indeed show that a form of relation between wizards and muggles beyond domination and oppression is possible. Magic became a part of everyday life not in the form of wanton domination or destruction, nor in the form of the twee trivialities of bourgeois wizard life, but in the form of universal welfare.

It was not to last. Jenkins quickly tired of Wilson’s stalling. On April 28th 1970 she secretly — and completely illegally — made contact with her counterpart in the Russian Ministry behind the Iron Curtain, asking for aid against the Ordinary Republic and the British muggle government. It is likely that Jenkins herself suggested the use of captured Siberian thunderbirds to destroy and terrorise the city. What is more uncertain is how the Oversight Committee of the Republic came to discover the Ministry’s plans. Almost five decades’ worth of propaganda would have us believe that Wilson himself leaked the information to them, when he was informed of the fait accompli on the evening of the 29th. This propaganda has the effect of legitimising the domination of the muggle government that followed and the creation — for it was a creation, despite what others may say — of the single-jurisdiction magocracy under which we now live.

The rest of the story can be told briefly, and with ironclad inevitability. The Committee discovered that the thunderbirds were en route — and that Albus Dumbledore and a contingent of aurors were on their way from Hogwarts to clear up the resulting mess, sweep away the remains in the way of every magical atrocity of the last three hundred years. It was Weil himself that decided on the burnings, a perverse performance of the false stories used to justify the Statute of Secrecy since the 17th century. Doubtless this was on Weil’s mind; doubtless, too, his terror of whatever fresh horrors his failed Revolution would be exploited to justify. Storm clouds gathered on the horizon. Pre-emptive vengeance seemed the only possible action. The Committee members took all the pureblood aurors from the Ministry cells in which they had been kept and, with the thunderbirds already close at hand, burned them at the stake.

The broad outlines of the story of the Nonmagical Revolution are well-known to many, even if in most accounts Weil is presented as a bloodthirsty chauvinist. So why call this a Secret History, apart from for flair and marketing? Why claim to write for all the muggles, as though one month in 1970 could claim to capture our entire experience? Perhaps I will be condemned for my overreach. But the answer to both questions lies in the power of our contemporary imagination. For, now, living within a system of nominal equality and material domination, we can barely imagine an alternative in which magic serves the people and in which the boundaries between wizard and muggle begin to dissolve — in which magic is not a private power but a public one. But for one month in April 1970, however weakly and however tenuously, that alternative shone from the Ordinary Republic of Edinburgh. It is a secret, now, that any such alternative ever could exist or has existed. It is one that we must break wide open.

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